The year is 1977. Cassie is a graduate student. As she researches a dissertation topic for her Women’s Studies program, she discovers the journal and letters of her own great-aunt, Katie. Cassie begins to immerse herself in Katie’s world, and begins to see her as a friend and confidante in spite of never having met her.
Katie was a leader in the suffrage movement for women’s vote, as well as the founder for the Birth Control League of Massachusetts. She was an artist and, most notably, a political cartoonist. The writing and drawings Katie left behind portray a woman who is passionate about women’s equality yet struggles for own sense of independence.
Cassie sees Katie’s life as paralleling hers in many ways. In spite of being decades apart, they both wrestle with cold marriages, seek self-determination, and labor over what it means to be a woman in their prospective eras. Also, they both live in a period of rapid growth for the ongoing women’s movement. Cassie’s personal life mirrors the growing pains of feminism during the 1970’s.
Katie’s journals and letters become an escape for Cassie as she navigates change in her own life and struggles with her father’s death, her resolve to divorce, and her decision to end a pregnancy. More than that, Katie’s writing serves as a guide for Cassie as she becomes independent and begins to discover herself.
The book emphasizes both the similarities and differences of women’s experiences in different time periods. Ames Sheldon illustrates how much and how little has changed for women over time. The most striking, graphic comparison is Sheldon’s description of an illegal early-twentieth-century abortion and a legal D&C in 1977.
Some of the journal passages are dry and matter of fact, perhaps a nod to the formality of the times. Although much of the dialogue came across as unnatural or stilted, that may have been intended as a representation of time and place as well. Overall, Lemons in the Garden of Love is an enjoyable and informative read. Cassie’s voice in the writing is distinctly different from that of Katie’s, being less formal and more modern, but the topics are similar, clarifying the commonalities that remain for women across time.
Through Katie’s diary passages and letters, Sheldon captures a bit of how it must have been for women of the early twentieth century. She writes, for example, of teaching women how to make their own homemade diaphragms from a darning ring and liquid latex, and includes a recipe for spermicidal gel. We have come a long way, indeed!
Katie is loosely based on the real life of Blanche Ames. The book includes examples of her fierce political cartoons which graphically illustrate the second-class status of women at the time, particularly impoverished women.
Sheldon is dedicated to the cause of reproductive freedom, so much so that fifty percent of the earnings from this book go to support Planned Parenthood. Lemons in the Garden of Love is a gift, of sorts, to the movement.